I was in New York in 2019 for my play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.” At the end of the trip, I appeared on a radio show with the sculptor, Ogundipe Fayomi. He said that when times were difficult, his job was that of delivering art supplies to artists. One of those was Jean-Michel Basquiat when he was painting in gallery owner Annina Nosei’s basement. She’d made the basement of her gallery available for Basquiat to use as a studio.
He invited Fayomi to an exhibition of his work. After the show, Basquiat asked Fayomi why he didn’t show, as though yearning for guidance from a Black fellow artist. Mildred Howard, an artist, told me that Basquiat tried to reach Raymond Saunders, a Black painter, when he came to San Francisco. I took his name coming up several times, ending with a conversation with Fayomi, as a sign.
I decided to write a play about Jean-Michel Basquiat. After research, my view of the artist was different from the judgment of the all-white jury of critics, gallery owners, and others who dismissed him as a “mascot,” “savage,” and one whose art reflected “intuitive primitivism.” Basquiat said that they regarded him as a “monkey man.” While friends of his who began as graffiti artists advanced in critical discussions minus the “graffiti” label, critics still regarded Basquiat as one. He resented the label. Many formed their opinion from a film called “Basquiat,” directed and co-written by Julian Schnabel, an artist who was a contemporary of Basquiat. I was offended by it, especially the scene which shows Basquiat urinating on Schnabel’s staircase. At the time, I didn’t know that Basquiat had dissed Schnabel’s work. Warhol dismissed Schnabel as “a bad painter.” Schnabel’s self-promoting film was his revenge.
2022 will be significant for Jean-Michel Basquiat. An exhibition will be held at the Whitney Museum, which didn’t show his work when he was alive. I haven’t heard from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which, when Basquiat was alive, said that exhibiting his work would be a waste of space.
For its part, the Metropolitan Museum is selling a cruel, racist book about Basquiat written by Soren Mosdal with illustrations by Julian Voloj. I wrote about racism in New York museums in 1969. The article was published in Art Magazine. Writing the play, I juggled some of the images and metaphors associated with the relationship between Basquiat and Warhol. Because some observers said that Basquiat offered Warhol “new blood” and because Warhol was fascinated with the legend of Dracula, I inserted a running comedy routine between the son of Dracula, played by Dominican American actor Raul Diaz, one of the best Draculas so far, and the show-stopping Wolfman, played by Dominican American actor Jesse Bueno.
After a virtual reading found on YouTube, I sent a script to Crystal Field of the Theater for The New City. The play ran for three weeks at the Off-Broadway theater from Dec. 23 to Jan. 9. Despite the virus, attendance was good thanks to the Amsterdam News, the Jean Parnell Show, Felipe Luciano, and Janet Coleman’s show on WBAI.
Director Carla Blank split the stage in two. The son of Dracula’s townhouse library is positioned on stage right. Two forensics experts in lab coats, played by Monisha Shiva and Laura Robards, speculate about what killed Basquiat on stage left. They work for Mary Van Helsing, a NYPD detective who views Basquiat’s death as a cold case. AUDELCO Award winner Roz Fox plays her. Brian Simmons plays a Basquiat wannabe and AUDELCO award winner Robert Turner plays a Black abstract expressionist, an older man who could have advised Basquiat, advice that would have kept him alive. Instead, he admired drug users like Andy Warhol, the leader of a suicide/death cult, and William Burroughs who, according to a new book by John Giorno, operated a smack house where people off the streets could come in and shoot up.
Actress Kenya Wilson began as an understudy, but became one of the stars as COVID hit our cast. One of the highlights of the staging was a shadow screen,which was choreographed as a dialogue between Basquiat and Richard Pryor, whose voiceover was done by Maurice Carlton.
While “artist-in-residence” at art dealer Annina Nosei’s gallery, one visitor remarked about there being coke everywhere. This was at a time when thousands of Black and Brown kids were busted for possession of a joint. Basquiat claimed that she sold paintings at such a brisk rate that some were unfinished. Basquiat said that he was her “victim.” I point out in the script that slaves were forced to take cocaine to increase production, but nowhere did I say that Nosei bought drugs for Basquiat, which is what art critic and Warhol groupie Linda Yablonsky claimed in a review printed in Art Newspaper. This review had such glaring misrepresentations of the script, which I sent to her along with a bibliography, that she said that she was “sorry.” She also wrote that the script referred to Nosei as a slave driver and that she locked Basquiat in her basement. Not true. This article contributed to the return performance of my play, scheduled for December 2022, being shut down.
I don’t blame Crystal Field, producer of the Theater for the New City, for canceling the return engagement. She provided us with a first-rate crew, stage manager, set, lighting and sound designers and a brilliant costume designer.
But powerful forces were against my interpretation of the relationship between the two artists. More acceptable will be the play and film that bears the approval of the Warhol Foundation. Probably Warhol as the benevolent white savior who brought Basquiat, the waif, in from the cold. A Nigerian director Julius Onah will also direct a film about their relationship. He claims to be influenced by the Schnabel film, but claims that the Basquiat story hasn’t been told.
The Warhol Foundation had already threatened to sue over a flier that my daughter and I created, inspired by a Basquiat painting that repeated the words, Parasites and Leeches. I took a segment of Warhol’s photograph of Basquiat in a jockstrap and inserted leeches all over his body. Inside each leech was a picture of Warhol. I was merely using Warhol’s technique of “transforming” the work of others. A judge recently decided that he didn’t transform a photograph of Prince created by Lynn Goldsmith. He plagiarized it. Warhol also had a reputation for exploiting those who worked for him.
Basquiat says that he did most of the work during their collaboration and that Warhol was lazy. Basquiat was also one of Warhol’s tenants. So when Basquiat wondered out loud whether he was “a flash in the pan,” Warhol, who called himself an entrepreneur, wondered whether, if this were true, Basquiat would pay the rent. Basquiat got Warhol to paint again after Warhol said that painting was dead.
After Basquiat’s death, vampirism became cannibalism as there began a power struggle over who owned his work, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They even sold scraps. A former girlfriend, Jennifer Clement, sold a refrigerator that he’d marked up to Sotheby’s for $5,000. Another girlfriend, who told me that there were many, is editing an oral history of Basquiat for Simon and Schuster.
Our actors, director, and project coordinator, AUDELCO award winner, Rome Neal, went up against a foundation with 100 million dollars in the bank and a multi-millionaire gallery owner. But it successfully challenged the narrative about Basquiat. He wasn’t just a junkie or “mascot.” He was a kid with an enormous talent who got mixed up with the wrong company. Decadent older men and women who led him astray and exploited him for profits and a racist critical fraternity so wrapped up in white supremacy that it failed to identify the multicultural influences on Basquiat’s work. The late Robert Ferris Thompson and the late Greg Tate were exceptions. I’ve tried to send the script which has challenged the racist treatment of her brother to Lisane Basquiat. She hasn’t replied.
Finally, my play, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” though banned in New York, is not dead. The African American Shakespeare Company will launch production in the fall in San Francisco. We also have made a film version.
Feb. 14, 2022